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The Specialist

The Specialist by Rhonda Nelson
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FEELING A BIT LIKE a puppet master about to pull the strings, Colonel Carl Garrett shifted in his roomy first-class seat and gratefully accepted a tumbler of Kentucky bourbon from the pretty flight attendant currently smiling down at him. "Thank you," the colonel murmured.

Brian Payne, his puppet de jour and a former major under his command sat next to him, his face an impassive mask of patience...but Garrett knew better.

Payne might appear patient, but that was the extent of it.

In exchange for pushing Payne's end-of-service papers through—when Garrett could have just as easily made things very difficult for them—Payne and a couple of his other friends had agreed to grant him one favor. Garrett had already collected from former Major Jamie Flanagan. His lips quirked.

And he'd gotten way more than he bargained for.

He'd sent Flanagan to Maine to prevent his granddaughter from marrying the wrong man. Only Flanagan had ended up marrying her himself. Though that hadn't been the colonel's original intent, he had to confess that he'd been pleased with the outcome. If he'd searched the world over he couldn't have found a better man—a better partner—for his granddaughter. In seven months she'd be delivering their first child—his first great-grandchild—and if the child was a boy, they'd promised to name the baby after him. He didn't know when anything had delighted him as much.

Of course, if Payne succeeded on this next "favor"—and considering the man had never failed at anything in his life, Garrett had no reason to suspect that he would start now—he'd be equally delighted, though for completely different reasons. Even his recent commendation for meritorious service—his expert handling of a hostage situation, specifically—as rewarding as it was, wouldn't compare to owning a piece of history, a piece he had secretly searched for and coveted for years.

He'd let Payne stew long enough, Garrett decided. Besides, waiting the man out was a futile effort. Garrett instinctively knew he would lose.

"I'm a big Civil War buff," Garrett said conversationally, a mild understatement. He wasn't merely a "buff." According to his wife, he was obsessed, but there were worse obsessions. "Did you know that?"

Though he hadn't so much as blinked, the colonel felt Payne go on alert. "No, sir."

"Oh, yes." Garrett lifted his glass and studied the amber liquid within. "I've walked every battlefield, studied every strategy, read hundreds of letters from soldiers—mostly Confederate, of course—and even collected a few. It was a fascinating time in history," Garrett ruminated. "Fascinating time... and yet, there's no man I find more fascinating than General Robert E. Lee." Another mild understatement. Lee was brilliant, possibly the best strategist and tactician in history, American or otherwise. If he'd been able to walk the valleys of time and had the liberty to choose to meet any of the men who'd gone before him, with the exception of Jesus, Robert E. Lee would be first on his list.

Payne quirked a brow, a silent indicator which told Garrett to continue. "Did you know he was asked to lead the Union army first, but turned it down?"

Payne inclined his head. "I seem to recall hearing that."

Garrett continued. "In a letter written to his sister, he said, "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home." He sighed. "No one talks that way anymore. Lee had passion, Major. He was a great man."

Payne acknowledged this proclamation with the usual silent nod.

"You're going to Gettysburg," Garrett announced without further preamble.

Gratifyingly, the first notable flicker of interest sparked in Payne's annoyingly impassive gaze. "Gettysburg? What will I be doing in Gettysburg, sir?"

"I want you to find something for me." Payne waited, presumably for him to elaborate, Garrett concluded, quite perturbed. The man was supposed to be more interested than this, dammit. Garrett frowned. It was quite unsporting of him. "Don't you want to know what I want you to find for me?" he asked, swallowing an impatient huff.

"I'm assuming at some point you're going to tell me, sir," he replied mildly.

Fine, Garrett thought. There was no point in playing cat and mouse with a mouse that didn't want to play. "Lee might have surrendered at Appomattox, but scholars agree the war was really lost at Gettysburg. The Confederacy never fully recovered from that defeat. Furthermore, Lee lost more than the war there. It's rumored that he lost a pocketwatch, as well."

"Rumored?" Payne repeated, seemingly interested now. "You're cashing in your favor on a rumor?"

It was a gamble, Garrett had to admit, but one he was willing to make. After sifting through countless letters—though none in Lee's own hand—Garrett was convinced that the watch did exist. It reportedly was engraved with the inscription "Lighthorse," meaning that it had most likely belonged to Lee's father, Harry.

If it existed—and he thought it did—then Garrett wanted it.

And if anyone could find it, then Brian Payne—aka The Specialist—could.

Operating on the belief that the watch had never made it out of Gettysburg, Garrett had kept feelers out at various antique dealers and pawn shops over the years. Up to this point they'd yielded frustrating leads which had inevitably arrived at dead ends. But now Garrett thought he'd finally received a viable clue. He scowled.

Unfortunately, so had another rival collector. And unfortunately this rival collector was also a friend, one who'd had the nerve to bet him—only one of many wagers over the years—that his rebel rule-bending girl could find it before Garrett's Specialist could.

Hogwash.

Granted, Garrett knew enough about Emma Langsford and her service in the military not to completely discount her. But to consider her a worthy opponent to Payne? One of his Project Chameleon protégés? Hell, Payne had been part of a secret unit that couldn't be found in any file, computer-generated or otherwise. He and his friends had been the best. So, would Emma Langsford be a match for Payne? He thought not.

Since Emma had recently left the service, as well, Garrett imagined that he wasn't the only person cashing in a favor, so to speak. No doubt Emma owed Colonel Martin Hastings, as well. He couldn't imagine any other reason the woman would agree to go and look for the watch.

Garrett had debated whether or not to tell Payne about Emma, but ultimately decided against it. In the first place, Payne needed to stay focused and if he was worrying about keeping up or even one step ahead of the woman, then he wouldn't be able to properly utilize that eerily pragmatic brain of his.

And secondly, somehow he didn't think Payne would appreciate being the object of a bet between friends. He'd undoubtedly take exception to his manipulated part in this wager. Naturally Garrett wanted to win, but he wanted the watch more.

Luckily, he had every confidence that he'd have both.

"I have what I believe is a solid lead in Gettysburg," Garrett finally continued. "According to a local auctioneer, a watch with the same inscription as what's rumored to be on the one Lee lost at Gettysburg was recently sold in the estate sale of an elderly woman who was an avid collector of, well...junk. She most likely didn't know what she had."

"What was the inscription?"

"Lighthorse, after Lee's—"

"Father," Payne finished, displaying a gratifying knowledge of Confederate history. "So if you know it was sold at auction, then there should be a record of who bought it and for how much. You shouldn't need me to go find it."

Garrett grimaced. Yes, he'd originally thought it was going to be that simple, as well. "Evidently this was a slipshod job and most of the items were sold in lots. The woman owned dozens of watches and they were sold off in groups of three."

Payne sat there for a moment, seemingly absorbing what Garrett had just shared. Predictably, he came to the same conclusion Garret himself had. "So the watch—provided it even exists—could be anywhere."

Exactly, Garrett thought. He looked away and quaffed the rest of his bourbon. "I'm confident you can find it."

Harlequin; September 2006
245 pages; ISBN 9781552545867
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Title: The Specialist
Author: Rhonda Nelson
 
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ISBNs
1552545865
9780373792818
9781552545867